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Before Lewis: What inspired his Narnia tales?

April 15, 2008 |  4:10 pm


Well, it seems that C.S. Lewis doesn't hold the patent on inventing the magical wardrobe that transports children to other worlds. Edith Nesbit deserves more of the credit for her 1909 story, "The Aunt and Amabel," in which a young girl, banished by her aunt to a bedroom for committing some vague act of mischief, escapes her loneliness thus:

She went straight to the Big Wardrobe and turned its glass handle.

"I expect it's only shelves and people's best hats," she said. But she only said it. People often say what they don't mean, so that if things turn out as they don't expect, they can say "I told you so," but this is most dishonest to one's self, and being dishonest to one's self is almost worse than being dishonest to other people. Amabel would never have done it if she had been herself. But she was out of herself with anger and unhappiness.

Of course it wasn't hats. It was, most amazingly, a crystal cave, very oddly shaped like a railway station. It seemed to be lighted by stars, which is, of course, unusual in a booking office, and over the station clock was a full moon. The clock had no figures, only 'Now' in shining letters all round it, twelve times. ...

A train station too, huh? Shades of Mr. Potter. This delightful short story is among a rich selection that Douglas A. Anderson includes in "Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction." Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen: A Tale in Seven Stories" gives us not only a

possible inspiration for Jadis, Lewis' villainous White Witch in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," but also for elements found in other modern fantasies--most specifically, I'm thinking of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Andersen's Snow Queen, for instance, lives in a palace illuminated only by the northern lights, and among her attendants are polar bears, which, in John Howe's illustration for this book's cover, pull the queen's sledge across the snow.

G.K. Chesterton is included, and so are Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Morris and many others. Even though the book's main title highlights its connection to Lewis' Narnia stories, editor Anderson is right, in the subtitle, to point out that the stories gathered here inspired more than a single author.

Nick Owchar